Every Friday, ‘The Album Cycle’ reviews a handful of new releases.
ALBUM OF THE WEEK
Various Artists – The Hamilton Mixtape
Cover albums are never as good as originals. But The Hamilton Mixtape – a reimagining of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, by some of today’s biggest voices – comes pretty damn close. They’re not all straight covers, in fact some merely sample the original beat, which makes it work as both a musical soundtrack and a standalone hip-hop mixtape. Nas, John Legend, and Kelly Clarkson all nail their respective tracks while Usher and Alicia Keys surprisingly fail to live up to their Broadway counterparts. The highlight, though, is the reunion of Ashanti and Ja Rule on ‘Helpless’ which takes you right back to the glory of nineties duets. – Madeleine Chapman
The Weeknd – Starboy
Over the course of his still-reasonably-young career, Abel Tesfaye has established a curious kind of identity: a phenomenal single and EP artist who struggles to hold interest on longer format releases. On Starboy, he hasn’t quite shed his tendency to go too long – its 18 tracks could very easily be a lean, digestible 13 – but he’s a lot more assured in his own music’s songs-about-drugs-and-fucking-that-you’ll-want-to-play-at-your-wedding duality. There’s a deep genre ambivalence throughout – standouts touch on everything from radio R&B (‘Reminder’, ‘Attention’) to funk (‘Sidewalks’) to 4×4 house (‘Rockin’) to straight-up soul (the shockingly good ‘True Colours’) – but, even at its most reverent, it feels organic; a celebration of his obvious influences, rather than a straight jack. It’s clearly built for night drives in winter, but it’ll play just as nicely in an Aotearoa summer – put it on at family Christmas and upset your uncles. – Matthew McAuley
Rolling Stones – Blue & Lonesome
Despite an eleven-year gap, nobody other than Stones apologists and fanatics are really crying out for a new record from the band in 2016. The group do have some unfinished business to tend to, however. Every album since 1986’s Dirty Work has been a compromise between the discrepant visions of band leaders Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, resulting in all these efforts feeling carefully calculated and constructed, even if they were often quite good. The simple concept of Blue & Lonesome dissipates this tension between art (Keith) and commerce (Mick) nicely, as the band rollick (‘Ride ‘Em On Down’) and groove (‘I Can’t Quit you Baby’) through a dozen old Chicago blues numbers by the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter live in the studio. In this setting, even the obligatory superstar cameo (Eric Clapton appearing on two songs) feels like an off-the-cuff addition, and the result is a potential coda to their career that is both fun, and as fitting as could be. The Rolling Stones finally embody the aesthetic they pined for from the very start – gnarled old veterans playing the blues like the artists they first idolised and bonded over. – Pete Douglas
Various Artists – Emotion, No
There’s something about the movement of specific into the universal into the specific again when regional genres thought inextricably locked in time & space revive in foreign locales (think of the half-lives of the ‘Dunedin Sound’ in America & Europe) and it’s been fascinating witnessing the flowering of Midwestern emo in places far removed from late nineties Chicago & environs. Emotion, No is a cassette compilation of Asian emo co-released by Hong Kong’s Sweaty&Cramped and Guangzhou’s Qiii Snacks, the latter co-founded by Howie Lee who helped arrange Guangzhou shows for Kiwi bands like Carb On Carb, God Bows To Math, Die! Die! Die! & the Shocking Pinks. Side A – “Punky” – has more fist-pumping gang-chants, with Yokohama’s MORETHAN evoking genre ancestor Hüsker Dü in ‘Waterfalls’ while Side B – “Nerdy” – trades more in twinkling guitars, fiddly time-signatures and yearning vocals – the drolly-named (and most well-known of these bands in the West) Chinese Football provide a ballad rather than banger in ‘Last Emo Boy’ from their self-titled 2015 album, while Malang, Indonesia’s Beeswax tug at the heartstrings with the lost-in-time ‘Wellspring’. – Stevie Kaye
Kacey Musgraves – A Very Kacey Christmas
To the cynical ear, a Christmas album might seem like a mere opportunity for artists to pump out some product at the peak time of year for sales, but the seasonal country record is actually a long-established Nashville tradition. Kacey Musgraves isn’t an obvious candidate for a festive collection – she’s only two records into her major label career, and is often marketed as ‘country music for people who don’t like country music’. Audiences who’ve discovered Musgraves this way may be shocked by A Very Kacey Christmas, which is for the most part an old-school helping of Music City corn. If that makes the album sound slight, it shouldn’t: Musgraves uses the Christmas concept to pirouette through a range of styles (including the wonderful Motown of “Ribbons and Bows”) and collaborators, like Leon Bridges on the lovely “Present Without a Bow” and Willie Nelson on the silly Hawaiian sway of “A Very Willie Christmas”. The relaxed approach allows Musgraves to casually show off her chops, and produce a record much more fun than her sometimes muted sophomore effort Pageant Material. – PD
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